music from Our Literal Speed Soundtrack Recordings, Can a Woman? by The Size Queens


“Picasso/Braque 1989,” a theory installation
Presented by The Jackson Pollock Bar
Directed by Christian Matthiessen

An installed video projection of “Picasso/Braque 1989” appeared at Gallery 400, 1 May 2009—4 July 2009. Installation set constructed by The Project for the New American Century. The text is derived entirely from phrases spoken by the historical figures in question. However, the phrases are derived from many different sources. The conversation below never took place.

Four actors are seated at a panel discussion (from Left to Right): Edward Fry, Yve-Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss, Leo Steinberg. They are later joined by the voice of Kirk Varnedoe.

Edward Fry: [reading from text, gesturing toward absent screen] “By contextual analysis and elimination of alternatives, the scene in this work by Picasso may be understood as a café with a bottle and glass on a table. Seated behind the table is a woman of apparently easy virtue, whose head is indicated by a newspaper advertisement [gestures], her body by a clothing store label, with her legs beneath the table, and next to the legs are newspaper clippings that spell out the pun LUN B TROU ICI. The full pun thus reads Au Bon Marche lun b trou ici, which may be translated as “One may make a hole here inexpensively.” This sexual, verbal and visual double-entendre is also particularly notable for its non-illusionistic indication of pictorial depth and space. [stops reading, puts down papers]

[pause, murmuring among group]

Rosalind Krauss [hesitantly]: Ed, this brings up the issue of whether there are limits to a correct reading. And…uh…I would say…that your reading is…wrong. Now there is certainly a long history of Picasso’s equating keys and key holes with sexuality. What I’m finding difficult, in fact wrong, about this reading is the way it literalizes collage space and the way the body would be conceived. To say that this work is about a woman who is behind a table, I would say that is wrong.

Your interpretation relates to how we read Picasso and Braque’s collages in general; how we make hierarchies. I just cannot imagine Picasso constructing illusionist space with a woman behind a table, or making the area with the newspaper clipping into her genitals. I find this repellent and also counter-intuitive as a reading.

Ed Fry [defensively]: From the moment I thought of the interpretation I couldn’t get it out of my head. That’s my first problem: I’d have to think up a new gestalt. What got me going on this picture was that I found it fascinating to cope with the image in relation to what was easily recognizable, such as the decanter and glass. This forced me to ask myself what the decanter and glass are doing there. Where are they? What position are they in? I began to realize that there is nothing literal about this image; it’s what I call a special kind of cubist allegory. I think what’s repellent to some people is that it is sexist, chauvinist, exploitative, perfectly in keeping with the sensibilities of a male raised in nineteenth century Spain. Those are different sensibilities from ours today.

Krauss [heatedly]: That’s not what I find repellent about it.

Fry: What do you find repellent? Repellent means something pretty serious.

Krauss: Well, I just find the literalist level of reading repellent. I take the readings of paintings very seriously. I mean I grew up in Washington, D.C., and I would go to the National Gallery with my father. My father liked the Picassos, but I didn’t. I liked the Braques, which were late Cubist and which I found magical. We would always get into the same argument about whether they were any good or not, and I would try to convince him. I think the sense I have of the importance of criticism probably comes from those debates. So, as I say, I do take the readings of paintings very seriously…

Fry [interrupting]: Roz, I’m upset by your use of the term “literalist.” What do you mean by “literal”? Because I don’t find this literal at all. I find this pure code.

Krauss: It’s literal to construct the body of a woman in this naturalistic way. According to you, we have a “picture” of her head and torso, then we have the area of her “skirt,” and the area under her skirt. That kind of unpacking of Cubist form is a “hunt for the referent” that procedes by removing the transformational aspects of the art to reconstruct a kind of nineteenth-century naturalist painting.

Fry [gestures toward absent screen, slowly but agitatedly]: Is this not a representational picture? Is this a nonrepresentational picture? Is this an abstract picture for you?

Krauss [gestures toward absent screen]: The objects that we can recognize are [moves hand, gesturing]: uh…a decanter, a glass and a table. So at that level, yes, we recognize them as objects, just as we recognize objects in other Cubist collages. But I think it’s very important to breed an intellectually respectable discussion, you have to find a way of mediating between the field of social events and the work. Otherwise, you’re nowhere.

Kirk Varnedoe [unseen voice, sounds of movement and shuffling]: Roz, are we getting away from our approved list of topics, here? I also see that some new participants have just entered the room. Now for those of you who have just arrived, I’m Kirk Varnedoe, the Director of Painting and Sculpture, and I want to remind everyone that this symposium on the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism is a closed door session and we would be grateful if you would take your places. [pause] Now, Ed, I think you were about to say something.

Fry [nods to unseen voice]: Yes, well, Kirk, I think, most of the time, Picasso and Braque didn’t know what they were doing; they were struggling in the dark, and if they hadn’t had each other to talk to, I don’t know what they would have done. They were stumbling along. They were absolutely lost. But, you know, this is a whole can of worms, because nobody is ever going to know what Picasso and Braque thought at that moment. At most, one can draw a diagram of the possible things they might have had on their mental agendas, consciously or unconsciously. It’s a difficult thing to deal with.

Leo Steinberg: Ed, you just stated that we can never know what Picasso and Braque were thinking at any one moment, which presumably would apply to any artist at any time. Of course, this is true, but then, those of us who’ve had some experience with psychoanalysis might say that we don’t even know what we ourselves are thinking at this very moment. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is a kind of self-defeating epistemology that spells the end of all discourse.

An artist does not paint the way a bird sings, no matter how beautiful the bird’s song. There is intention, and you can speculate about what he’s thinking. It adds to the degree of consciousness. The idea that we’ll never know what they were thinking is unnecessarily defeatist.

Fry: Don’t impute that to me. That is just my reply to anyone who thinks that I am asking for a specific recipe for what Picasso and Braque were thinking and doing. You can’t know.

Yve-Alain Bois: To pinpoint one referential reading for this work would be to deny its essential ambiguity. Part of the meaning of Cubism is found precisely in the impossibility of fixing meaning. It’s the possibility of this lack of consensus that is important. The possibility of endless openness to interpretation is something that we should never forget. In this case, one could speak of a “war against painting,” a purely rhetorical war, of course, that implies dialogue, and I think this is a dialogue that is not just between Picasso and Braque. I think it involves an entire system of Western Painting…

Fry [questioningly]: I’m just wondering why everybody’s so worried about interpretations.

Bois [responding vigorously]: Well, it’s not by chance that when you are in front of a Cubist painting, you ask, “What is that? Is it a hat, a head, a carrot, a cow?” The question of referentiality, of interpretation, is intrinsic to Cubism.

Fry: But interpretations don’t help you to see or think very much. The work is what is important to me – I’m very old fashioned that way, I suppose. It’s the work; everything else is secondary. The consciousness of these people as they respond to tradition and to each other should be the central issue.

Steinberg: Yes, here we are sitting in the work of art – and we are completely ignoring this fact. Our discussion so far has been on the basis of the books we have read; it could have been held at any time whatsoever, and I would like to warn this meeting that we are wasting a unique historical opportunity which will never occur again. We’re talking like typical art historians with their noses in books…

Krauss [interrupts]: …on that point I think one needs a model for how politics enters the work…

Kirk Varnedoe [interrupting, voice outside the scene]: Especially, I think, today, Rosalind, this beautiful autumn day in November, a day when the discipline of the East Bloc has turned into a shopping spree on the Kurfurstendamm. And as I’ve been thinking about our discussion, I’ve been thinking about what a truly oppositional culture would look like.

Krauss [looks off stage at unseen voice]: You have?

Varnedoe [voice outside the scene, attempting to be light-hearted]: Yes. And I think I’ve arrived at a working definition: it would be a little group that could resist every blandishment of the society of the spectacle, that could agree to renounce all temptations to bourgeois amusements, and gather themselves in a dark room to think high thoughts and do noble deeds. This would be a truly resistant subculture, it seems to me. [laughter]

Steinberg [responds to unseen voice, questioningly, and having none of its light-heartedless]: So, Kirk, we must now pay attention to socio-political events? And not the work?

Krauss [raising hands in exasperated gesture]: Well, Leo, they can’t just enter the work by walking in. We need a model for how they get instituted within the aesthetic structure. In other words, we can read all of the newspaper clippings in Picasso and Braque’s collages but does that tell us anything whatsoever about them as aesthetic constructions? I think it doesn’t. The newspaper is enormously important, and I want to deal with its importance in relation to the structure of the aesthetic object, the work of art. You can’t just dump meaning onto the work.

Fry: Then why do the artists put in these pieces of paper? Just for fun, just for decoration?

Steinberg: Or if we think about the interchangeability of solid and void which becomes crucial for our understanding of Cubism; fifty years of classroom lecturing have made this a cliché, but remember Braque’s words: [with gravity] “Picasso and I said things to one another that will never be said again…that no one will ever be able to understand.” I suspect he is referring to discussions about the kind of mystery one feels when one confronts a work without a conceptual vocabulary to describe it.

Krauss: For me, a reading of this work would have to start with the facts. It happens that in both Picasso and Braque there are holes – formally speaking, now – in their paintings, often near the table ledge… So there’s a very aggressive consideration of the nature of still-life composition, of presence and absence…That’s why I want to go back to the problem of mediation. The idea that collage is a subversive gesture is everywhere in the literature, yet this is a specific kind of construction.

[Looks out at the audience] If art gets reduced?if Braque and Picasso’s works get reduced, if they lose their specificity?then the next step is always the question, “What is art?” This is how today’s art operates. All of installation art, all of it, the WHOLE phenomenon of mixed media, is a continuation of this problem: that art should be posing the question, “What is art?” in a whole variety of ways.

We’ve discarded “medium specificity,” discarded everything that Michael Fried supported, and we’ve embraced all the things that he attacked, all sorts of theatrical, intermedia, interdisciplinary work. However, I would like to distance myself from that ‘we,’ because I happen to think that something really TERRIBLE is happening here; what is happening is the internationalization and academicization of installation art. For me, this has been the last straw. Once everything is focused on raising pigs and planting flowers in between railroad ties, we have arrived at a place that is totally uninteresting.

Fry: But maybe that kind of interest is not always necessary; maybe a work of art, might sometimes be a theoretical text of equal validity to a text in another form.

Bois: Yes, this is precisely why semiology has been so useful for me. But there is no obligation to invest every single twentieth-century work of art with the same model. If it doesn’t work, you just leave it and move on to something else.

Fry: Let me throw out a wild idea. We’ve been looking at Cubism for only about seventy years and it’s taken us a long while to learn how to do it. I suspect someday it will come more easily. It took the classical system of pictorial representation several hundred years to be created in European cultural history.

Steinberg [interjects]: But for a word like “classical,” Ed, a dictionary probably gives you twenty-six definitions. You will obfuscate the issue without explaining which “classical” you have in mind…

Fry [responding happily]: I don’t think the definition of “classical” is what is missing; the missing factor in our discussion of Picasso and Braque is that they were trained as classical representational artists, and everything they did as Cubists had some relation to the whole classical tradition of pictorial image making. There is often a very critical and reflexive relationship between what they do as Cubists and what they learned as classical art students. Someday, we may gradually forget how to look at classical art and have to learn it all over again and become critically self-aware of it – the way we are when we look at it through Cubist art. So, Cubism may allow us to see earlier art once more, with new eyes. Sometimes a new operation offers the only way of really looking at earlier art.

Krauss: That’s because many people have moved toward a point of total irresponsibility toward the actual experience of works of art. And on this point, I have a confession to make [long pause]: from early on I thought I was going to be a painter. So the questions for me have always been, where do you find conviction? Is an aesthetic experience important? Do you have to start from your feelings about what culture is? I think the answer to all of these is “yes.” So the question is whether it’s important to organize something like an aesthetic experience in relationship to a medium—maybe not a traditional medium but SOMETHING that might function that way. This is the question that artists must now ask, because I think that culture matters, and it matters what you say about it, and it matters what explanatory model you build for it. Because if you build something trivial, the ground is going to be cut from under it.


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